Transgenic weed beets: possible, probable, avoidable?
Weed beets pose a serious problem for sugarbeet Beta vulgaris var. saccharifera crops. Traditionally, the only efficient method of weed control has been manual removal, but the introduction of transgenic herbicide-tolerant sugarbeets may provide an alternative solution because non-tolerant weed beets can be destroyed by herbicide. We evaluated the possibility that new, transgenic, weed beets may arise by gene flow between wild and crop plants. In a study area in northern France, weed beets were present in variable densities in sugarbeet fields of up to 80 weed beet plants m-2. Weed beets arise from a long-lived seed bank, with seeds germinating from depths of 5 cm or less. In addition, diploid F1 crop wild hybrids and triploid variety bolters (individuals with a low vernalization requirement) were present in low densities in virtually all sugarbeet fields. We found gene flow to be possible between all forms, illustrated by both overlapping flowering periods in the field and successful controlled cross pollinations. The F1 crop wild hybrids result from pollination in the seed-production region by wild plants possessing the dominant bolting allele B for flowering without experiencing a period of cold. In the case of a transgene for herbicide tolerance incorporated into male-sterile seed-bearer plants, such hybrids will contain both the herbicide tolerance and the bolting allele. Contamination of the fields by transgenic weed beets will be the result unless bolters are removed manually. The same will apply in the case of a cytoplasmically inherited transgene. Incorporation of the transgene into the pollinator plants will prevent the immediate formation of transgenic weed beets. However, in sugarbeet fields, variety bolters may successfully cross pollinate with weed beets in neighbouring fields. The use of diploid pollinator plants instead of tetraploids will considerably enhance gene flow towards wild beets, and is not, therefore, an attractive option. In conclusion, the appearance of transgenic weed beets is possible but can best be retarded if the transgene for herbicide tolerance is incorporated into the tetraploid pollinator breeding line.